Pune's Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav dials down festivity amid COVID crisis, but legacy of city's pandals is undimmed
From a handful of temple trusts, the sarvajanik ganeshotsav in Pune has transformed into a mega carnival boasting of nearly 3,000 public mandals attempting to outdo each other with countless lamps, lights and colour.
In 1992, a grand spectacle had held the people of Pune in its thrall when for 55 days, a magnificent palace stood in a busy street – a facsimile of a Bikaneri fort. Bedecked in gold and silver finery, the Shreemant Dagdusheth Halwai Ganpati rested within, and this ostentatious celebration of its centenary became a testament to the attention the sarvajanik ganeshotsav commands each year.
‘Na bhuto na bhavishyati,’ the festival was celebrated as though there is no tomorrow, says Akshay Godse, a third-generation member of the Shreemant Dagdusheth Halwai Ganpati Trust.
Pune: historically a crucial political and strategic stronghold in the Deccan. Here, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj resided at the Lal Mahal, the Shaniwar Wada was the epicentre of the Peshwai and in the colonial era, the city became an important office of the British Raj.
A deep-seated faith in the elephant-headed god had made Ganesh Chaturthi, that falls in the Hindu month of Bhadrapada, a festive affair in this city, but only in 1893 did Pune witness its first formal sarvajanik ganeshotsav.
Traditionally observed as a 10-day ritual in homes and temples, it was largely brought to the public space by Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak who advocated in his newspaper, Kesari, the need for celebrations which would augment social unity among a people striving for independence.
Nilesh Vakil, a senior member of the Kasba Ganpati Mandal says, “Tilak knew that the British realised that if they object to religious practices, they wouldn’t be able to rule us. So celebrating the ganeshotsav in a public forum became a way to bring people together for the freedom movement, under the guise of a religious custom.”
Tilak’s vision was inspired from a practice prevalent in Baroda during those years and he flagged off what is now an over hundred-year-old tradition. From a handful of temple trusts, sarvajanik ganeshotsav has transformed into a mega carnival boasting of nearly 3,000 public mandals all outdoing each other with countless lamps, lights and colours.
But in their most rudimentary form, “the public festivities were a coming together of three reputed families of the time: Dagdusheth Halwai, Bhau Rangari and Nanasaheb Khasgiwale together who set-up a ganesha idol open to the public,” recounts Saurabh Dhadphale, a volunteer at the Tambdi Jogeshwari Ganpati Mandal.
A miravnuk (procession) marks the vighnaharta’s arrival and 10 days later it sets off to immerse the idol and close the festival. The visarjan miravnuk is a sight to behold as streets fill with thousands of devotees, roads are littered with the red, yellow, green and orange hues of the rangoli and seated atop a massive pandal, in all his glory is the lord himself, ornamented with flowers, gold and jewellery.
When the Nutan Marathi Vidyalaya, a local school, stopped granting permission for practising the dhol to its students, Dhadphale says, “it led to the emergence of the first independent dhol pathak, Shivagarjana.” A visarjan pandal is synonymous with the deafening beats of innumerable dhol-taashe, which attest to an incredible energy.
Circa 1983, Dhadphale explains, when public festivities were under way, the question arose, ‘which mandal would be the first to immerse its idol?’ “A council assembled to resolve this dilemma and thence were formed the paach manache ganpati or the five most revered Ganpati idols.” Some others, including the famed Shreemant Dagdusheth Halwai were colloquially called ‘lighting che ganpati.’
Today, the public celebrations of the five revered idols are rooted in traditional worship. Aartis are held twice daily and the fragrance of garlands and incense floats around the pandals. On the visarjan day the small, clay replicas of the idols are immersed first, followed by other local mandals.
Until a few decades ago, the Dagdusheth Halwai pandal marched at the rear-end, brightening the evening with its twinkling lights, and its immersion at midnight indicated the close of the festival. Over time, pandals proliferated, and the resulting environmental pollution, and in certain cases public intoxication, found the sarvajanik ganeshotsav embroiled in controversy.
Nonetheless, Dhadphale notes, the five primary mandals along with the Shreemant Dagdusheth Halwai Ganpati and the Akhil Mandai Mandal persisted in their struggle to mark a tradition which rested on worship and social responsibility.
Vakil opines that the ganeshotsav is pratikatmak, a festival symbolising social change. In keeping with that, “The Kasba Ganpati operates every year with a theme using slogans like Clean Pune or E-Waste Management to draw peoples’ attention to critical issues.”
Vakil describes this as ‘tradition with innovation,’ the post-independence period heralding a shift from the fight for freedom to social welfare. Independence led to a change in the mandal’s primary role and meant taking on relevant initiatives that ranged from providing water ATMs to drought-hit villages to awarding scholarships to students coming from abusive, broken homes.
At its core, the festival continues to bring people together. “Tickets to the Savai Gandharva music festival,” notes Godse, “are not affordable for all.” But when a stalwart like Pt. Bhimsen Joshi sang on the Dagdusheth dais, his music was open to everyone who gathered in the chowk.
Unanimous in their struggle to assume social responsibility, the mandals stepped up, Vakil states. “When the coronavirus crisis hit, Kasba Peth was a containment zone so the mandal distributed food – two rotis, subzi and a banana – to nearly 600 impoverished people over 45 to 50 days, and everything from peeling and cooking vegetables to making rotis was undertaken by volunteers alone.”
Eight mandal trusts also collaborated in July to set-up a COVID-19 centre in the hostels of Fergusson College. An overwhelmed Vakil adds, “To cater to patients in a college established by Tilak, in a room where once resided Swatantryaveer Vinayak Damodar Savarkar – there could be no better way to honour a tradition we are trying to uphold.”
The mandals have also devised ways to celebrate the ganeshotsav in simple, safe ways. For 2020, Godse details, “The decoration, the lights, the mahal will all be ditched and a cloth mandav will be erected. Other celebrations, such as the women’s festival on rishi panchami or children’s activities also stand cancelled.”
Conforming to social distancing, the Kasba trust will disallow devotees from touching ganesha’s palkhi, still others like the Guruji Talim Mandal, will institute online darshan events. And not more than five or 10 volunteers will be present in the pandal at a time.
In stark contrast, decorations usually begin 100 days ahead of the festival every year, as many as 300 volunteers work with each mandal. The Brahmanaspati Mandir, Ganesh Swadandalok and Mahadev's Kailash Parvat are only among some of the incredible pandals made by Dagdusheth through the years.
“But right now the situation,” laments Godse, “is that all the dhol pathaks or the karagirs who make the dhols, sweet-makers, coconut and flower vendors, people who set up small carts for odds and ends, in what is a large mela for Pune city – right from the Shanivar Wada to Mandai – have all lost out on their income. Their lives have completely gone for a toss.”
For volunteers like Vakil and Dhadphale, working in ganesh mandals is a way of life. Every year, adjusting their routines for two months they are engaged in a service which teaches them crucial lessons. Now, many mandals have stopped asking for subscriptions, but as a 10-year-old, Vakil recalls coming home from school, dropping his satchel and joining his friends to go from home to home for collecting the vargani.
“Here, you actually talk to people, listen to their concerns and complaints, rather than chatting on social media,” Vakil adds. “We work round the clock in rotation, witnessing the faith of our aged volunteers who come only to chop some 200 kilos of onions on the last day for the bhel-batta snack.”
“We have received so much training here over the years,” Dhadphale remarks, “that no task is small. We are content in simply sweeping the mandap.”
Among the five revered ganesha idols, the Kasba Ganpati’s palkhi ranks at the top because it is the gram daivat or the presiding deity of Pune. For over 120 years, its pandal is put up in a gully in Kasba Peth in the old labyrinthine city. Tales abound regarding the temple’s establishment but the most well-known is that of Shivaji’s mother, Jijabai discovering a Ganesha idol, called the jayati gajanana: a Ganesha whose worship will bestow upon you immeasurable victory. Every kasba also worships the gram daivata or the goddess Jogeshwari and in Pune, the Tambdi Jogeshwari Mandir therefore commands the position of the second manacha ganpati.
The Guruji Talim Mandal was a singular symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity at a time of communal rioting, says its president Prithviraj Pardeshi, a united front formed by Khasgiwale and Sheikh Kasam Vallad hence commanding the position of the third venerated ganesha. The fourth is the famed Tulshibaug Ganpati Mandal, formed in 1901 by the largest bazaar trust in Pune, while Tilak reserved the fifth honour for Kesari, a ganesha housed at the Vinchurkar Wada in Sadashiv Peth when Tilak resided there. Run by the Kesari-Mahratta Trust, since 1905, it now rests permanently at the Kesari Wada in Narayan Peth.
The sarvajanik ganeshotsav is a vast public undertaking but its subtlety lies in its leadership, often assumed by members of one family. As the Bendre family presides over the Tambdi Jogeshwari, so are the Khatavkars the guardians of the Tulshibaug trust.
In 1952, DS Khatavkar, the father of Tulshibaug mandal’s president Vivek Khatavkar, created the first halta dekhava – mobile figurines which depicted Ram, Sita and Laxman crossing a river in a boat. This concept was popularised to such an extent that for years the ganesha was recognised as the ‘Khatavkar ganpati.’
So, in 1988 when Khatavkar, a graduate from JJ School of Art was tasked with creating a new ganesha idol for the mandal, it was a daunting affair. Khatavkar recalls Godse’s grandfather, the illustrious Tatyasaheb Godse who helmed the Dagdusheth Halwai trust, performing a pooja of a small ball of clay and saying to the then novice, ‘Vivek, aaj tuzhya karyacha Shree Ganesh zhala.’ (Today marks the beginning of your task.) And Khatavkar’s first commission led to the massive 15-feet fibre-glass ganpati idol seated in Tulshibaug.
Khatavkar also assumes the role of the principle decorator for the Dagdusheth Halwai ganesha conceptualising and executing the heavily studded and brightly lit pandals for which the two trusts have become exceedingly popular.
Describing the trajectory of this temple, Godse says that when Dagdusheth and his wife Laxmibai lost their son in the plague epidemic that hit Pune, the couple resolved to create two idols, of ganpati and dattatreya as a spiritual release from their grief upon the advice of Chitrakoot’s Sadguru Madhavnath Maharaj. Made of clay, wood husk and plaster of Paris, this idol is now under the care of the Akara Maruti Mandal in Shukrawar Peth. Godse continues, “The Dagdusheth Halwai subsequently passed into the hand of traders,” and Tatyasheb took charge of an inventory that included 300 rupees, six mirrors, two idols, a kanthi and four copper bracelets which adorned the ganpati’s arms.
In 1968, when the idol was damaged, Tatyasaheb commissioned a new statue, the ganpati which rests in the temple today. He performed the yantrasiddha ritual, Godse iterates, on the advice of their sculptor’s father, a revered purohit who said that such an idol would “fulfil the desires of all the devotees coming here to pray.” He adds, “Appa shilpi assured Tatyasaheb that the more we preserve the sanctity of the idol, the more it will prosper.” Needless to say, the Shreemant Dagdusheth Halwai Ganpati is now a world renowned religious shrine.
Today, 73 years into Indian independence the sarvajanik ganeshotsav has become symbolic of teachings passed on through three generations. And Khatavkar’s belief that the vighnaharta, the destroyer of evil, will ward off the coronavirus pandemic soon after the ganeshotsav, a reflection of the faith inherited by the people of this city.
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